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The Global Recognition and Protection of Sport Heritages

Sport heritage has been, until recently, a relatively obscure topic. People working at sports sites and museums have formed professional associations such as the International Sports Heritage Association, while a small, international group of academics (including the author of this blog) have been engaged in sport heritage-based research. Anecdotally, public interest in sport heritage appears to be growing, given the proliferation of sport heritage-based sites, attractions, and experiences, while there has been a steady growth in interest and research output about sport heritage in academia.

However, two recent developments point to a growing interest in sport heritage – in particular, the recognition of sport heritage as an important cultural practice that, in some cases, may require protection.

The first major development is that ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites – which “works for the conservation and protection of cultural heritage places” – has declared “The Heritage of Sport” as its theme for the 2016 ICOMOS International Day on Monuments and Sites. This declaration is an extraordinarily significant form of recognition for sport heritage as a field. ICMOS is a very well known and well regarded international heritage agency, and is probably best known for its considerable work with the UNESCO World Heritage program. Details about the “Heritage of Sport” day – which is on April 18 – have yet to be released, but it will nevertheless an important milestone in sport heritage.

23 June 2010; Daire Plunkett, Dublin, in action against Paul Murphy, Kilkenny. Bord Gais Energy Leinster GAA Hurling Under 21 Championship Semi-Final, Kilkenny v Dublin, Nowlan Park, Kilkenny. Picture credit: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

The second major development is the fact that the Gaelic sport of hurling is likely to be added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List. In an article in the Irish Times, the Irish government looked to the inscription as “provid(ing) a significant opportunity to showcase the uniqueness of hurling, uilleann piping and Irish folklore beyond our national boundaries.” Although several other sport-based cultural practices are on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List, such as Taekkyeon – a traditional Korean martial artChinese Dragon Boat races and festivals, and tugging rituals and games in Southeast Asia, sport is not the primary focus of these inscriptions. However, hurling is a popular, codified, spectator sport that also has cultural meaning. In other words, the sport component is of primary significance in its potential inscription on the List.

These developments at UNESCO and ICOMOS raise some intriguing questions for sport heritage scholars. Will these efforts lead to sport being properly considered an important part of global heritage? Will heritage recognition and protection of sporting practices enhance or detract from the sport? Can the sports adapt and change over time, or will they ossify? Certainly, as a sport heritage scholar, I welcome these developments, and I look forward to seeing how sport is recognized by the global heritage community.

Philadelphia

Last weekend, I had the chance to visit Philadelphia for the first time.  The reason for my visit was a brief get-together with my older brother, who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  We don’t get a chance to see each other very often these days, and Philadelphia was a short, non-stop flight for both of us to meet up, have a couple of beers, and watch a sporting event or two.

Before I get to the sport heritage part of the trip, I have to say that Philadelphia is a great city!  I was only there for a few days, mind you, and I was staying at a VRBO in the “old city” about three blocks from the Independence Hall World Heritage Site.  That said, I found it a very walkable city with some some really neat neighbourhoods, great museums (I wish I could have visited more of them), and good food and drink.  The people we met there were “authentic” – as convoluted as that word is.  They didn’t put on airs, I guess, and I imagine had we pissed them off, they’d tell us so.  In general, when we told people we were from out of town, they were glad we visited, gave us a bit of friendly advice (like – if you’re going to an Eagles game, cheer for the Eagles…even if you like the other team), and generally let us be.  Was rather refreshing, actually.

However, one cannot partake in a sports trip to Philadelphia without noticing that city’s sport heritage is very prominent.  Even in the city centre, steps away from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, was an advertisement for a recent baseball exhibition at the National Museum of American Jewish History:

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Of course, I wrote recently about the tension that (appears) to exist between the city’s “real” sport heritage and its fictionalized portrayals.  However, one cannot escape that the sporting past plays a huge role in the city’s current identity.

The city has a quasi-“arena district” just outside of the city centre that houses the baseball stadium, football stadium, and hockey/basketball arena, with a kind-of bar/entertainment facility called Xfinity Live.  Now, the arena district is, basically, the three venues, the bar facility, and parking lots.  However, it is the city’s sport heritage that gives the district a sense of place.  Xfinity Live, for example, is on the one-time site of the Spectrum, long-time home of the NHL Flyers and NBA 76ers. Inside the venue, the Spectrum is remembered…in bar form:

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The heyday of the Philadelphia Flyers are also recalled at Xfinity Live (and, also in bar form).  The Flyers were known as the “Broad Street Bullies” during the 1970s, as the team was known for their aggressive style of play, and so fans can now soak-in the nostalgia at a Flyers-themed pub:

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Around Xfinity Live are statues of ex-players, such as 76ers player “Dr. J” – Julius Erving.  Perhaps most interesting was the statue of long-time anthem singer at the Spectrum, Kate Smith:

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Smith’s rendition of God Bless America was a bit of a talisman for Philadelphia teams, particularly the Flyers.  Whenever she sang, the Flyers almost always won.  After she passed away, the Flyers used to show a video of her singing, particularly if they really needed a victory:

We managed to go to a Flyers game and Eagles game during our stay.  The Flyers arena, the Wells Fargo Center, is about 20 years old, so it doesn’t have a lengthy history.  That said, there were a few reminders of the Flyers glorious past, as well as some displays honouring past players – including the late, great Pelle Lindbergh, who was one of the best goaltenders in the NHL in the mid 1980s until he died in a car crash at age 26:

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The Flyers game itself was fantastic, with the home team holding on for a 4-3 victory versus the Colorado Avalanche:

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The Eagles game was played on the day before Veterans Day, so the patriotism was particularly prominent before game time:

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The game itself was a bit of a laugher, as the Eagles beat the visiting Carolina Panthers 45-21.  While I’m a Panthers fan, I did root for the Eagles – I think I may have only spotted one other Panthers fan, and I imagine he might have received his fair share of abuse during the game.  Eagles fans REALLY love the Eagles:20141110_205158

Great trip, all in all, but it did also got me thinking about a couple of heritage/sport heritage items and issues:

  • Legitimacy and commodification: The city has a remarkable sport heritage – in part, perhaps, because they have a notable and lengthy sport history.  The breadth and depth of the city’s sporting past gave the heritage markers legitimacy and, I suppose, made them more more apt to be commodified (in bar form and otherwise).  In other words, the city’s sport history made its sport heritage more recognizable, gave it greater resonance, and made it easier to sell to a broad-base of fans.
  • Different sports generating more/fewer sport heritage markers: It seemed that, at least to my eye, that the Flyers seem to have cornered the market on sport heritage markers in Philadelphia – or, at least in the arena district.  Despite the presence of the Phillies and Eagles stadiums – and the likelihood that both the baseball and football teams have more support than the hockey team – most of the heritage, from the bars to the displays to the statues, were hockey-based.  Not sure if it is down to ownership of places like Xfinity Live, or if the Flyers have just done a better job of using heritage in marketing, or if fans are just more nostalgic about the Flyers than the Eagles, Phillies, and 76ers.
  • Heritage retail: As far as I know, there hasn’t been much done on heritage retail.  That is to say, either retail stores that sell heritage products (in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin is a commodity), or shopping districts, stores, or eateries that are meant to look “olde timey.”  Philadelphia has heritage retail in spades, and I wonder whether it might be a good case study.
  • Public/private heritage spaces: Not sport heritage, but the Independence Mall area of Philadelphia has a curious blend of public and private run heritage attractions/retail, etc.  That is to say, it is somewhat unclear at times whether a space is public (that is to say, publicly operated through the National Parks Service) or Private (either as a CVB, museum, gift shop, or other heritage attraction).  At times, the aesthetic of the attractions and employees are so similar (and, at times, the spaces are so intermingled) that it is not always clear who runs what, and to what end.